I know that a business needs a leader, but I don't know what that really means. What does a leader do and how does he act?
First, let's start by understanding that leaders are made, not born. Occasionally, an extraordinary person comes along who can inspire people to lofty performance by sheer charisma or overpowering intelligence, but these folks are very much the exception. You don't have to be a Winston Churchill to be a strong, effective leader.
Second, leadership is just a set of skills you can learn and practice like any other. You'll probably find some of the skills easier to master than others, but all of them are well within the capabilities of anyone who's already built a business.
Near the top of the list is role modeling, which is about how a leader looks and acts around the business. Be aware that your business is a perfect reflection of you. If you're a disorganized mess, so is your business; if you have a surly attitude, so do your people. On the other hand, if you're calm, confident, upbeat, meticulous, fair, approachable and a problem-solver, that's the model your people will follow as well.
You've heard owners and managers (and parents) casually toss off the remark, "Do as I say, not as I do." Let me be crystal clear: This is not a casual remark; it's a death sentence. It reflects an attitude that will destroy your business as surely as the sun rises. You absolutely, positively must set an unwavering example for your company and its people. All day, every day, in every situation, you must behave the way you want your employees to behave. No matter what you tell them, the rules are, the real rules are defined by your own actions.
If it sounds like an oppressive burden to be living up to your own standards all the time, beware. If you find it unbearable to be held to the same standard of performance and behavior that you expect from your employees, there's a serious disconnect in your value system that will sabotage your personal and professional success until you face it and get it fixed.
There are, of course, a few lovable buffoons who can pull off acting like scatterbrained idiots while their companies run like clockwork. They're very few and far between. Odds are, you're not one of them. It takes a huge amount of energy to make your business run differently than the model you display, and it's just not worth it.
First, you'll need to define exactly what attitudes and behaviors you'd like to make as the hallmarks of your company. What do you really believe is important-courtesy, honesty, top quality, organization? Take some time to really think about these, and write them down.
Then you have to live them. Don't just act them, but truly embrace and believe them. Don't think you're going to get away with throwing together a bunch of ideas and values that you don't really buy into, because your employees will know it in a New York-minute. When they do, you'll have exactly no credibility, and you won't deserve any.
Being a leader means many things, including acting as a consistent model for your people. Walk your talk, and they'll walk along with you. If you don't, you'll be walking alone.
Construction Business Owner, December 2006